Photo: Duncan Rawlinson

Story

September 4, 2019

What can urban changemakers learn from Burning Man? Black Rock City: A place to practice new ways of urban development and community building

By Jennifer Warburg

 

Every summer in the Black Rock Desert of the western United States, 70,000 people gather to build a city. For a single week, Black Rock City rises from the dust – a temporary metropolis dedicated to experimental art, community and ways of living. At the end of the week, many of the installations are ritually burned, including the central effigy which has given the event its name: Burning Man. What is left is packed away until the city disappears, leaving no trace.

The annual event and global network known as Burning Man is one of the most influential movements in contemporary art, culture — and urbanism.

Arriving to Black Rock City, one approaches what first appears to be a mirage in the desert — a vast semi-circular city one-hundred-and-sixty Berlin blocks wide. There are the magnificent works of art, the new age temples and mutant vehicles, but also roads, infrastructure (including, vitally, a sanitation system), buildings, neighborhoods, civic monuments, an airport, post service and a fire department.

Increasingly, the event in Black Rock City has drawn the attention of mayors, makers, urban planners, architects, cultural managers and innovators all over the world, who recognize that it takes both idealism and pragmatism to make an urban center of 70,000 people safe and functional. Under extraordinary conditions – major population growth, an inhospitable desert environment and only a span of weeks to build and dismantle the infrastructure for tens of thousands of people, Black Rock City manages to function safely as a 24-hour-a-day city, a pedestrian and bike utopia and the largest Leave No Trace gathering in the world, where people experience a life-changing level of free expression, social inclusion and civic engagement.

For actors working to bring about change in cities, Black Rock City is an intriguing laboratory for urban experimentation.

Burning Man invites people into a space of co-creation which is very different from conventional cities, whose planning processes and development are directed by a small group of decision-makers with specific outcomes in mind. Nearly every aspect of Black Rock City is built by and flexible to adaptation by residents. The people who come to Burning Man are not simply “attendees,” but rather active participants in every sense of the word. They create Black Rock City’s buildings, communities, art and interactivity and ultimately the experience that is Burning Man. Participation is one of the culture’s Ten Principles, which also include self-reliance, decommodification, civic participation and leaving no trace.

Black Rock City’s ethos has its roots in the anarchist and artistic circles of San Francisco’s counterculture scene, which pushed for creativity and imagination in the urban public sphere.

Culture is the driving force in the shape of Black Rock City. Density is embraced as a way of engineering abundant social life. A pedestrian and bicycle-based transport system makes for slower movement, more contact with other people and cleaner and safer conditions. (In the United States, where most cities are sprawling and car-oriented, these two aspects of urban design are themselves “radical.”) Art and public space are prioritized in the city’s design. The city arc encloses a massive central plaza of open desert which functions as a commons, gallery and playground.

Temporary, highly visible, highly resourced and open-source, Black Rock City has been an ideal venue for urban prototyping.

Private property and commerce are not considered in the apportionment of space – within the city limits, the Black Rock City economy functions based entirely on decommodification and gifting. In order to preserve this spirit, residents observe a total ban on monetary transactions, commercial sponsorships or advertising. You can’t buy anything, but you can attend any of thousands of meals, performances, workshops, services, hotels offered by neighbors. The most amazing part of the city is the wildly inventive, extemporaneous, and sometimes bizarre creations of 70,000 people unbridled in their imaginations.

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson
Galaxia, Burning Man 2018. Photo: Duncan Rawlinson

Temporary, highly visible, highly resourced and open-source, Black Rock City has been an ideal venue for urban prototyping. Burners bring home experiments like taking over parking spaces to create temporary commons, inspiring tactical urbanism festivals like Park(ing) Day as well as more lasting city improvements like parklets and public art. First designed for Burning Man, Shiftpod shelters aid displaced people around the world. In areas marked by turmoil, economic decline and natural disasters, such as Northern Ireland, Detroit and Nepal, Burning Man artist David Best and the Temple Crew have built beautiful works of architectural art, to act as public healing spaces for people to express their deepest emotions: grief, joy, love, celebration and remembrance.

The idea that long-term and system-wide solutions can be catalyzed by trying out and demonstrating a quick, low-cost model is the concept at the core of many Actors of Urban Change projects.

Burning Man has inspired hundreds of events, public art and community building projects in countries all over the world, and is now a year-round movement with an active global network – counting 26 Regional Groups in Europe alone. Burning Man is part of a broader cultural shift – away from the consumer economy to the experience economy. Away from institutions towards values-led sustainable networks. Of people seeking new ways to come together in communities of spirit and purpose to make change for the better. People that believe making change means making connections, both broadly in the world and deeply at home. In this spirit, Burning Man and Actors of Urban Change are kin.

Burning Man is part of a broader cultural shift – away from the consumer economy to the experience economy.

Burning Man’s principles and city design have not eliminated conflict or social tension. Black Rock City is challenged by dynamics familiar to urban actors around the world: tension between advocates of change and of preservation, displacement of artists and makers, declining levels of civic engagement and rising tourism and consumer culture. Burning Man is grappling with space constraints, gentrification and the right balance of cultural management for Black Rock City.

At a time when many urban development and social structures seem to need reinvention for the challenges we face, Burning Man points toward our capacity to collectively do city-making differently, according to our higher principles.

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Jennifer Warburg is a writer, urbanist and longtime participant in Burning Man. She sits on the Black Rock City Cultural Direction-Setting task force.